A long time coming, Black Panther is making his solo cinematic debut in Marvel Studio’s 18th addition to their Marvel Cinematic Universe. In an era of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, representation matters more now than ever. Audiences desire good stories, but what we crave is the ability to view ourselves as the heroes of our stories. Though audiences have seen African American superheroes before in the form of Blade, Storm, Luke Cage, and Misty Knight, this form of representation in the MCU is minimal compared to the largely hetero, white male figures that make up the ranks. It was a fantastic surprise to see T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir to the throne of fictional African country Wakanda, introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and it is a greater pleasure to see him star in this Ryan Coogler-directed solo venture. Coogler constructs a wondrous experience in this action-packed, yet intimate, story of a man caught between tradition and modernity. In the process, Coogler breathes new life into a subgenre ever on the verge of growing stale after 10 years of films.
Shortly after the events of Civil War in which King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa’s father, died in a bombing, T’Challa returns home to undergo the ceremonial traditions of Wakanda before he can ascend to the throne. Supported by his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angella Bassett), and brilliant sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa is accepted as the new leader by the five tribes of Wakanda and he begins his reign in relative peace. Unbeknownst to him, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), arms dealer and decades-old enemy of Wakanda, is once more on the move and has teamed up with brilliant combat strategist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a mysterious young man with a secret agenda of his own for Wakanda. As events pull T’Challa and Erik together, the lives of both men are put on the line as they fight for more than ideology, but their very souls.
While some films maintain a place in pop culture history through old or new stories (see: the Star Wars saga), others transcend their medium to become a beacon of progress and a guiding light to rekindle a sense of hope within audiences so that they, too, can realize that they are more than what history tells them they are. Where last summer’s blockbuster hit Wonder Woman reminded women around the world of their self-importance and power, Black Panther clearly does for the global African community. Black Panther is a celebration of a culture rarely shown so brightly, so wonderfully, so positively in cinema. At the screening I attended, audience members were dressed in the traditional garb of their homeland while others brought their entire family (toddlers and all). A man to my right spoke about how he was bringing his two-year-old on opening weekend, but he couldn’t wait and had to see it immediately without his son. These are just a few examples of how palatable the significance of Black Panther is beyond just being a film. It’s truly a moment that the rest of us are honored to bear witness to. With the exception of a few things, Black Panther lives up to that hope.
One thing Marvel never skims on is the look of the worlds they create. In conjunction with set decorator Jay Hart (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), costumer designer Ruth E. Carter (Marshall/Malcom X), and production designer Hannah Beachler, Coogler brings the fictitious, futuristic Wakanda into the tangible world. Whether decorating the individual members of the tribal council in formal wear, designing Shuri’s technical lab to out-perform Tony Stark’s, or crafting smallest details in either primitive or advanced weaponry, there’s not a thing about Black Panther that doesn’t feel purposeful. Everything seamlessly blends the ancient traditions of the tribes that formed Wakanda in the country’s infancy with post-modern future tech that is clearly only limited by the imagination of the designer. It’s this blending of past and future that bleeds beyond the look and feel of Black Panther to form one of the larger themes of isolationism vs global responsibility.
When first introduced in Civil War, Wakanda is described as a small country specializing in textile imports, but beyond that, nothing else is known. Now audiences come to know that this small country possesses the kind of technology that could spark a revolution the likes of which the world has never experienced. Traditionally, Wakanda’s people protect their own interests and stay out of the affairs of the world, no matter how grave. Isolationism is a heady topic for Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole to tackle as it has no distinct answer. Given the terrible atrocities done in the name of progress, should Wakanda stand by and allow these events to take place or should they take action? This theme is one of two that converge between T’Challa and Erik as one wonders if Wakanda should lead the world, while the other wants Wakanda to conquer. Considering how dark previous MCU outings Captain America: The Winter Solider, the aforementioned Civil War, and even the typically joyful Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2 were, this exploration of action vs. reaction is compelling enough to hold the audience except Marvel just can’t help themselves and decided to add an additional element in which both T’Challa and Erik are victims of the sins of the past. Two-sides of a similar coin, their choices define who they are, yet their circumstances certainly put them on different paths. This is a return to the thematic well, as seen in Thor, Thor: Ragnarok, Iron Man 2, and more, that drags down an already emotionally compelling narrative. Adding this element in just feels like old hat.
Another issue Black Panther suffers from is the frequent use of close-ups in the action sequences. Coogler has an incredible talent for telling emotionally evocative stories and his skill is strongest in the quieter moments of Black Panther. He and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) offer breath-taking establishing wide shots and intimate close-ups which enable audiences to take in every ounce of wonder or pain. These scenes – whether of the glory of Wakanda or the oasis T’Challa sees during his spirit walk – are undeniably gorgeous. However, once the action begins, the cracks begin to show. Granted, the cracks aren’t so elaborate as to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but when Coogler takes the camera up-close, the audience becomes lost in a flurry of activity that’s difficult to track. A highlight moment comes when T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye travel to South Korea to capture Klaue and a gunfight breaks out before one of the most entertaining car chase sequences Marvel’s ever shot (mostly thanks to scene-stealer Wright). Before the fight takes to the open streets, the camera swings around the fighters to maintain a close proximity, offering an intimate view of the fighting, yet it’s near impossible to tell who’s doing what to whom. It’s not until Coogler literally slows down the action so that we may witness one more moment of Okoye’s badassery, which, upon completion, slowly tracks to the next fighter and on, that we really get a sense of how strong each of them really are in a brawl. Since it’s slowed down, you quite literally can’t take your eyes off of the action and it leaves you begging for more. Luckily, this scene is merely a prelude of things to come, especially from Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri, a refreshing change from the predominately ultra-macho MCU.
Seriously, Boseman may be the lead of this film, but he’s not the focus and Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Wright make this movie a blast. Audiences know T’Challa and they know his journey as it was established in Civil War, so Coogler wisely keeps him in the center as he introduces new characters that more frequently come to the forefront of the story. Without a doubt, the reason to rewatch Black Panther over and over again is because of the badass women that support T’Challa. Nyong’o’s Nakia is a spy working to help free Nigerian slaves when T’Challa arrives to bring her home after his father’s death. A former lover, Nakia isn’t beholden to T’Challa and challenges him every time his view is in opposition to her own, never budging as she trusts in her own self-worth. Gurira’s Okoye is the head of the Dora Milaje, the king’s elite security force, and the greatest warrior in the country. She’s more than brute strength as she offers council and support to her friends, but don’t get in her way as she’s even a challenge for T’Challa in a fight. Wright’s Shuri is joyful, joyous, and utterly exuberant in nearly every facet of her creative process whether designing new tech or showing off the old. She’s smarter than Stark and far more empathic, but the real satisfaction comes from watching Shuri and T’Challa bounce off each other as they screw around like siblings do. Making up the other side is Killmonger, played with excellent charisma by Jordan, even as he oozes menace. More than a physical match for T’Challa, Jordan is just as brilliant and, in many ways, more captivating to watch. Killmonger is the rare MCU villain whose screentime is far less than you’d like. Rounding out the cast is Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi; a friend of T’Challa whose story is small, yet justifiably reasonable; Winston Duke as M’Baku, a leader of the nearby primitive tribe Jabari; Martin Freeman returning as CIA spook Everett Ross; and Forrest Whitaker as Zuri, shaman and Royal Advisor.
In the end, Black Panther is an engaging story that retreads old ground in new ways. It’s not going to revolutionize the superhero film, but it will radicalize the way audiences look at cinema. Here’s a film where every major player, save for two, are of African descent and they are warriors, leaders, and sources of wisdom. Even the villain is driven by reasonable purpose unseen in the MCU since Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was introduced. Killmonger is certainly as engaging to watch and probably more tragic than Loki. First steps are always the hardest, and if this is a first step for strong representation in cinema, they made it look good. Wakanda forever.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.